Taiwan: Who will upset the balance?

In the weeks leading up to Taiwan's March 18 election, Beijing put out a steady stream of threats that there would be hell to pay and no second chance if Chen Shui-bian, an advocate of the island's independence, won.

Mr. Chen did win by a plurality, but there is no sign so far of hell from across the strait.

Instead, the Chinese government said it would closely watch what Chen does.

The Taiwanese president-elect adroitly offered to make a pre-inaugural journey of "reconciliation" to China.

"Reconciliation" is one of those creatively ambiguous words that might imply future unification, but might not.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin responded, yes, a summit in due course, and he would also be willing to go to Taiwan.

But first, he insisted, the "one China" principle must be recognized.

That takes them back to the pre-election status quo, which, all things considered, is not a bad place to be.

White House security adviser Sandy Berger praised the words from Beijing as "measured" and the words from Taipei as "conciliatory." And, with the Taiwanese, in any event, consumed with demolishing 50 years of nationalist corruption and repression at home, there is a good chance that the latest Taiwan crisis will blow over without missiles flying across the strait - if everybody stays cool.

That "everybody" includes America, which is not always given to verbal restraint during its election season.

Taiwan has not yet had much impact on the presidential campaign, but, in the House, Majority Whip Tom DeLay has denounced the administration as soft on the Taiwan issue.

A Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which the administration considers provocative to China, has been adopted by the House. Aside from authorizing the sale of sophisticated weapons to Taiwan, it would establish direct military communications between the Pentagon and Taipei.

The bill faces a presidential veto if it is passed by the Senate, but Republicans are talking about combining it with the legislation giving China normal trading status. That would present the administration with a dilemma in its dealings with China.

If there are ways to embarrass the administration and candidate Al Gore over Taiwan, the Republican leadership can be counted on to find them.

UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has been in Beijing since the Taiwan election, and national security adviser Sandy Berger is scheduled to be there next week.

Their mission is to urge the Chinese government to hold peaceful talks with the new Taiwanese government.

Their problem is how to answer Jiang Zemin if he says, "OK, we will stick to the status quo on Taiwan for now. Will you?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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